Cincinnati, Ohio — It was Matt Borges, the former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, who was handcuffed by U.S. Marshals Friday after being sentenced to five years in prison for his participation in the biggest corruption scandal in state history.
But federal prosecutors made clear that they were trying to send a message to other state leaders who played roles in the scandal and are now trying to pretend they didn’t.
The sentencing of Borges, 51, follows the 20-year sentence U.S. District Judge Timothy Black meted out a day earlier to former Ohio House Speaker Larry Householder for masterminding the scheme. Akron-based FirstEnergy and other Ohio utilities ponied up more than $60 million between 2017 and 2020 to pass and protect a $1.3 billion ratepayer bailout that was mostly intended to benefit FirstEnergy.
Borges received a lesser sentence because he was only involved in 2019, when FirstEnergy funneled $38 million into a dark-money group that funded an ugly, falsehood-strewn campaign to defeat a citizen-initiated repeal of the unpopular bailout. Because those voices were squelched — and because Ohio’s Republican legislature refuses to repeal the corrupt bailout — Ohioans continue to be harmed by the racketeering conspiracy, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Matthew Singer.
The bulk of the subsidies — those going to two nuclear plants in Northern Ohio and a fee to “recession-proof” FirstEnergy — have been suspended. But Ohio ratepayers continue to pay hundreds of millions to prop two coal plants owned by AEP and other utilities, including one that’s in Indiana.
The effort to gather enough voter signatures to put a repeal of the bailout — House Bill 6 — failed after Borges bribed a worker with the petition drive $15,000 for inside information and opened lines of communication with Republican officeholders.
At the same time, teams of “blockers” harassed and allegedly assaulted petition gatherers and Householder’s minions flooded the airways with ads falsely claiming that the repeal effort was really China’s bid to take over the Ohio energy grid.
The scheme Borges participated in was meant to “prevent Ohio voters from exercising their right to reject this corruption,” Singer said. “Ohioans never had the opportunity to vote up or down on this legislation.”
Singer also pointed the finger at people only speaking out about Householder now and not earlier.
“It’s interesting that some people are piling on (Householder) after the fact,” he said. “So many knew what was happening in real time and did nothing about it. Not only did they do nothing about it, they helped facilitate it.”
Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose in a Tuesday appearance on Cincinnati’s 700WLW claimed that everybody who knew Householder knew he was “a crook” at the time the mammoth conspiracy was taking place. However, LaRose never spoke out against the deal at the time. And in text messages presented to the jury, FirstEnergy CEO Chuck Jones said that LaRose — who also heads up the Ohio Ballot Board — was giving him “private” updates about the signature-gathering effort.
LaRose has refused to explain whether he was in communication with Jones or what he might have told him, but Singer, the prosecutor, seemed to refer to the state’s top elections official on Friday.
Not only did Householder, Borges and their Republican allies squelch a citizen-initiated attempt to repeal the corrupt utility bailout, the gerrymandered legislature is now putting Issue 1 on the Aug. 8 ballot. It would make it virtually impossible for citizens to initiate amendments to the state Constitution. LaRose, a major supporter of the move, claims it will reduce corruption in Ohio.
During Borges’ sentencing Friday, Singer decried the fact that many of the uncharged players in the racketeering scandal continue to thrive on Capitol Square. They include mega-lobbyist Robert Klaffkey, whom co-defendant Juan Cespedes testified slid a check for $400,000 in FirstEnergy dark money across a table to Householder during a 2018 meeting. Klaffkey denied sliding the check, but he didn’t deny being present.
Singer said that it was remarkable that Klaffkey was “comfortable sitting in a room and sliding a $400,000 check to a public official.”
Klaffkey is hardly alone.
Megan Fitzmartin was paid hundreds of thousands as she aided Householder and co-defendant Jeffrey Longstreth in creating a Householder-friendly Republican majority in the state House. Now she’s policy director for the Republican supermajority in Ohio’s gerrymandered House.
Corruption — and tolerance of it — corrodes our political foundation, Singer said.
“Once corruption takes hold democracy itself becomes a charade,” he said.
Cespedes and Longstreth are yet to be sentenced and U.S. Attorney Kenneth L. Parker on Thursday hinted that others might yet be charged in the scandal.
This story was republished from the Ohio Capital Journal under a Creative Commons license.